England is one of the world's most densely populated countries, but where in England has the highest population density?
This is Millharbour on the Isle of Dogs, not far down the dockside from Canary Wharf. Specifically the densest area is in the centre of my photo, behind the yellow and orange buildings and in front of the really tall one at the back. Officially this area is LSOA Tower Hamlets 032D which, according to figures out this week, has a population density of 106,716 people per square kilometre. Nowhere else comes close. The least dense LSOA, by comparison, is Northumberland 019C with a density of 2½.
Firstly a word about LSOAs. These are part of a geographicalhierarchy introduced to make sense of census data in 2001. The smallest groupings are Output Areas (OAs) which contain approximately 125 households or 300 people. These are grouped together, about four at a time, to create Lower Layer Super Output Areas (LSOAs) which contain 400 to 1200 households and 1000 to 3000 residents. These in turn are grouped to create Middle Layer Super Output Areas (MSOAs) with 2000 to 6000 households and 5000 to 15000 residents. Census areas aren't meant to match neighbourhoods or administrative boundaries, merely to be useful for statistical purposes.
The Isle of Dogs is divided up into two dozen LSOAs. They're highly irregular and of very different extents, but each has a roughly comparable number of residents. Originally there were ten fewer, but the rate of housebuilding between 2001 and 2011 forced several of the larger LSOAs to be split. Millwall and Blackwall were particularly affected, and in each location one old LSOA had to be divided up into five new ones. The orange LSOA is Tower Hamlets 028H and that's the second most densely-populated in the country. The red LSOA is Tower Hamlets 032D and that's top of the pile.
I've long thought there was something odd about Millharbour, the redeveloped zone on the west bank of Millwall Dock, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Now I know officially - it's unusually dense. A grid of newbuild blocks and towers has grown up over the last decade, in a variety of shapes and forms and claddings, without much lowrise inbetween. Several of these towers have over 30 floors, one over 40, stacked above luxurious concierge desks and residents-only gyms. It's not great news for anyone hoping for direct sunlight at ground level.
And yet the map of Tower Hamlets 032D doesn't quite match up. Maine Tower, the highest of all, lies just outside the boundary. Talisman and Duckman Towers share an entrance but only the shorter of the two is included. An entire flank of solid balconies is on the wrong side of the street so doesn't count. Looking at precisely what falls inside the requisite eight acres left me thinking "OK, there are a heck lot of flats here, but I'd never have guessed the density was so extreme".
The boundary twists to include one of the last remnants of the first wave of Docklands redevelopment, the green-framed Great Eastern Enterprise Centre. This contains a school, a nursery, a theatre... and zero actual residents. Elsewhere is Indescon Square, a turfed void which is all that counts as a communal garden around here. One street gets no higher than nine storeys, and along one side its townhouses reach only five, indeed population density could be so much greater if only every patch was built upon and to the maximum extent. I note that all parking has been carefully hidden away at basement level, which definitely helps.
The only shops in 032D are a dry cleaners, an estate agent and a Chinese supermarket - an appealing store stocked with pristine aisles of outsourced product. Everyday needs are catered for in the Tesco Express across the road in 032E, but the majority of residents in their skyboxes get their refreshment needs delivered, judging by the number of vans and mopeds buzzing around at street level. You too could join them, there are still several rental apartments up for grabs in the Sirocco Tower, with cinema room, therapy tables and dog-sitting thrown in. Filling these flats and adding even more residents will boost the population even higher, cementing this chunk of Millharbour as the densest in the UK.
That's quite a drop, from 106,716 in first place to 65,705 in second, but this is still a jam-packed neighbourhood. It's located on the north bank of the Thames alongside Blackwall Reach facing the spiky dome of the O2. You can see from the photo how just close together everything looks. And yet the tallest building, the 44-storey Charrington Tower, lies just outside the boundary of Tower Hamlets 028H, as does the slant-roofed Ontario Tower on the right, so they don't count. Again it was only when I started exploring on foot that I started to question why this particular LSOA was quite so unusual.
The majority of the LSOA lies within New Providence Wharf, a private Ballymore estate with a guard positioned at the main entrance and a brief stretch of Thames Path that links to nothing. It's such a grumpy development that it posts No Biking and No Photography signs by each entrance (but I only read the notice on my way out so stuff that). The main building is a monolithic crescent block rising to 19 storeys and surrounding a central garden podium (go away, residents only, CCTV is watching you). Peculiarly both ends of the crescent lie within 028H but not the centre which has been allocated instead to 028E.
Instead the LSOA takes in older, lower apartment blocks to the west, mostly nothing special... and the Tower Hamlets Reuse and Recycling Centre in Yabsley Street. Combined with the Northumberland Wharf Waste Transfer Station it means that a significant proportion of the land area of Tower Hamlets 028H is taken up by facilities contributing zero to the population. It also means the local area regularly smells of rotting bins.
One further lofty residential block just squeezes inside, the Horizons tower. It wasn't quite under construction at the time of the last census so its 190 homes have appeared since the LSOA boundaries were redrawn, which may help explain why the population density has increased. Indeed builders have been squeezing in extra apartments along much of the Thames and Lower Lea Valley of late, which is why Tower Hamlets has long been the fastest growing borough in the country. If I read this week's statistics properly then it's also just leapfrogged Islington to become the most densely populated borough in the country. 16,400 people per square kilometre is properly packed in... but nothing compared to Tower Hamlets 028H and Tower Hamlets 032D.